By Brian Patten.
By the time Brian Patten received the recent catalogue from Maggs Bros featuring a sale of his friend Bernard Stone’s books, he had already embarked on a memoir. When asked to comment on it, he provided a brief reminiscence, below, along with a poem written earlier for a Festschrift, but otherwise unpublished until now. –Ed.
AMONGST THE LEGENDARY bookshops of the twentieth century two stand out for me. One was George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and the other was Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop in London. George let young writers sleep in his and Bernard kept them awake and partying half the night in his. Both men were magical and both are gone.
George’s ghost still haunts Shakespeare & Co. but Bernard’s has no one shop to rest in. Like Doctor Who’s Tardis, the shops would vanish – only to materialise elsewhere. His business lurched from one financial crisis to another, and yet each shop he moved to was mysteriously bigger than the last. The first one was in London’s Kensington Church Walk, a tight book-lined squeeze, an oblong cubby hole from which he conducted his limited editions business. The second, a few shops up the Walk was probably his most famous, and set the tone for the others.
It was a decent sized space, its walls were lined with posters and photographs of novelists and poets along with illustrations by Ralph Steadman and others, and its shelves heaved with collections of poetry and little magazines, and the limited editions and pamphlets published by Bernard’s own little press. An incredibly realistic waxwork dummy of Sigmund Freud stood near the window. With its back to the world and disinclined to pay attention to anyone, it stood there quietly peering at a bookshelf of old classics and would inevitably annoy new customers. They’d stand behind it asking for some book or other, growing more and more agitated when they got no response, then they’d storm out muttering about the bad mannered proprietor. Meanwhile, Bernard would be elsewhere in the shop dusting a shelf or indulging in another vodka and orange.
EACH SATURDAY YOU would find Bernard’s shop buzzing with novelists and poets, drunk or half-drunk on the endless bottles of wine Bernard would produce to supplement those they’d brought in themselves. You’d find five or more of them any given Saturday. Lawrence Durrell, Alan Sillitoe, Stephen Spender, Ralph Steadman, B. S. Johnson, Peter Porter, Roger McGough, Christopher Logue, Posy Simmonds, Michael Horovitz, Adrian Mitchell, Adrian Henri, a young Carol Ann Duffy, as well as visiting Americans, like Allen Ginsberg and Ted Joans – these were only some of those who’d drop by. Bernard had many friends, inside and outside the world of books, and though books were his first love, the many beautiful young girls who befriended him and often worked in his shops were a close second. There were only a few people who raised a sigh. Once, when Bernard saw Ralph’s friend, Hunter S Thompson, about to enter one of his shops he hid under a desk quaking.
There were book launches, poetry readings, birthday parties – any excuse for a party and Bernard was up for it. Sometimes there was hardly room for the punters, though they were just as welcome, and often ended up as drunk as the authors.
Bernard was born in Nottingham in 1924. His parents were Jewish refugees from the Ukraine, and he began his working life as a street-trader. He loved restaurants and he loved dancing, though to look at him, he was the last man you’d expect to find spending the night out clubbing. He was a small, dapper man, quiet and circumspect. Trying to prise any information out of him was like trying to open a safe with a book-mark. During one of his last illnesses, I managed to get him out of his tiny flat near Russell Square and into a wheelchair. I pushed him around town. Our route, as seemingly erratic as a butterfly’s, was dictated by Bernard – or rather by whichever beautiful woman he wanted to follow behind in the wheelchair.
In 1993, when he was upping sticks for yet another move, a group of his friends put together The Shelf Life of Bernard Stone, a Festschrift. Here was my contribution:
All the books are whispering,
They’re kicking up a fuss –
“Bernard’s on the move again!
Are you sure he’s taking us?
We’ve been advertised, promoted,
We’ve been praised and criticised,
We’ve been to all the parties
But still feel unrecognised.
We’re worn out, we’re exhausted,
We’re absolutely numbed.
From Church Walk to Lamb’s Conduit Street
We’ve been fingered and much thumbed.
Now here we go again!
For the second time around
Our lord and master, Bernard,
Deems us Covent Garden bound.”
The highly praised, the poignant,
The mediocre, the bad,
The deep ones and the shallow,
The depressing and the glad,
The books that lie in ambush,
The bitchy ones, the gruff,
The anorexic volumes,
And the ones that know their stuff –
Bernard’s packing all of them,
He hasn’t got the heart
To leave the duds behind him
When the time comes to depart.
His authors travel with him
In a state of mild decay,
Staggering from Lamb’s Conduit Street
Bernard leads the way.
The ghosts of Harry Fainlight,
Of Durrell, and the rest,
Look down at the removal vans
From their place among the blessed.
“There’s a bookshop here,” they whisper,
Blake’s chosen the decor.
The lease goes on forever.
Your name’s above the door.
Reggie’s in here waiting
With an endless case of wine.
Your sister’s got the cork-screw.
She says please take your time.”
Bernard can hear them clearly.
He nods and bows his head.
He blows the dust from an old slipsheet,
And stores up what they’ve said.
From the packing-cases drift
The scents of Passion and Chanel.
Bernard’s packed his second love.
The girls are moving on as well.
Brian Patten rose to prominence in the ’60s as one of the Liverpool Poets (with Roger McGough and Adrian Henri) and has since written more than 50 books for both children and adults, many of which are listed here. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of both Liverpool University and John Moores University. His website is at www.brianpatten.co.uk.
More online: An obituary from the Camden New Journal.